The incidence of brood parasitism by Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater; hereafter “cowbirds“) within host species typically reflects the continental pattern in cowbird abundance across North America, where parasitism is heaviest in the Great Plains. However, we found considerable variation in cowbird parasitism on Dickcissel (Spiza americana) nests within a subregion of the Great Plains (the Flint Hills), where the highest levels of cowbird parasitism on grassland bird nests had been previously reported. Local parasitism frequencies on Dickcissel nests varied latitudinally across the Flint Hills, ranging from 0% to 92% of nests parasitized. Interestingly, we found no obvious patterns in habitat or host attributes that were associated with this steep geographic gradient in brood parasitism. Cowbird parasitism on Dickcissel nests was not correlated with the vertical density of local prairie vegetation, mean nest distance to edge, proportion of forest to grassland habitat surrounding study sites (≤5 to 10 km), geographic variation in host abundance, or Dickcissel density or nest initiation dates. Parasitism frequencies and intensities (number of cowbird eggs per parasitized nest) on Dickissel nests were only significantly related to variation in local female cowbird density. Dickcissel clutch size and apparent fledging success were negatively correlated with local cowbird parasitism levels. Geographic patterns in cowbird abundance within and among regions should be considered when establishing conservation areas for grassland birds or other cowbird hosts of concern.
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Vol. 122 • No. 2